The methods of creating affordable housing, in many ways, are insensitive to the very populations that they serve. A search for affordable housing units through the HUD portal for the city of Ann Arbor will locate you on the outskirts of town, away from city life, detached and remote. Similarly, this is the role of prisons. The prison industrial complex, as it stands today, is more revengeful than it is rehabilitative, and the target population is overwhelmingly minority. Minorities are more likely to be eligible for affordable housing due to covert and/or overt forms of discrimination and institutional racism.
Affordable housing is a necessity in the nation and developers have latched on to the novelty or ‘coolness’ of prisons in many low income communities which is highly problematic. Planners, developers and architects should consider the methods of providing affordable housing carefully. Affordable housing is when families pay 30% of their household income for housing. Take for example the Armory Artwalks in Jackson, MI. It was Michigan’s first prison making it a historical site and adding to its antiquity. Private developers are buying old prisons for reuse because they are building and selling new ones at higher rates, making the prison industrial complex lucrative with nearly 70 billion dollars spent on the infrastructure, probation, parole, and detention. They are both building new ones to imprison more people and rehabbing old ones for affordable housing units.
Then isn’t it ironic, and almost sadistic, that we are housing low-income people in the very places law enforcement expect them to end up?
People who have prejudice, bias, and racist ideologies judge the individuals who are locked up, therefore we cannot wholeheartedly say that that we have a ‘just’ system. If you believe this notion then you may consider the fact that, there are people in prison who were dealt bad cards, or who really were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or who are there because our intercity schools have fundamentally failed them. While minorities may have committed crimes, it is harmful to society to continue a system of revenge instead of a rehabilitative one where minorities will never break out of the cycle of poverty. Because let’s face it, all of us have broken the law, the only difference is that we didn’t get caught.
When you move beyond how media and culture portrays the souls who are imprisoned and who they are, please remember that they have blood running through their veins and families who love them just as yours does. They have spent days, months, years, and even decades in these institutions. It becomes home to them. In an odd way, leaving prison after 20 years would be like displacement. Prisons should be rehabilitative and education centric. They should train incarcerated individuals to make a living for themselves so that they do not continue the cycle of poverty and end up in public or affordable housing. We should not be building more prisons or housing low-income individuals in them. Just as a planner should not plan on top of a cemetery, we should not rehab a prison for affordable housing use. It is filled with tragedies and is a living cemetery.
Moreover, the novelty that exists in dining, working or living in an old prison is morose. The Armory Artwalk website proclaims “there are no words to describe this property, this is a "must see" experience!!” The Liberty, a high end hotel in Massachusetts feeds off of the allure of what used to be Charles Street Jail with metal framework in the atrium and dining tables inside prison cells.
The critics may say, well at least it is not a prison anymore and it is providing housing, but to that I argue don’t we as planners owe it to our communities, blocks, neighbors--heck to ourselves! to be sensitive to the issue of mass incarceration on affordable housing recipients? Shouldn’t we be held to a higher standard to question the ethics of reuse and development? Whether we are AICP or not, ethics should be a priority for all planners when considering affordable housing. As a profession we have historically failed low-income and minority populations. Isn’t it time that we learn to be more culturally sensitive?